Shaking loose the fiction around earthquake safety codes

Op-eds Opinions
OPI Turpin Building - Belle White
File photo by Belle White/The Martlet

When the big earthquake hits, will the buildings on campus survive? Earthquake retrofits or not, the answer is most likely no.

It’s a common mistake to think that seismic retrofits (like the kind applied to Clearihue’s A-Wing about six years ago) will ‘save’ the building from an earthquake. In the case of a gentle shake, that’s pretty much correct.

But when the big one hits, most of the buildings on campus are going to be severely damaged, requiring extensive repairs or complete demolition. Why? Because the National Building Code of Canada (NBCC) does not require that standard buildings survive an earthquake — it requires that people inside be able to evacuate safely.

Not that I think we should change the code. It’s very hard and very expensive to design and build a structure that will survive a major earthquake unscathed. There is a set standard for buildings which will survive a major earthquake intact in the NBCC, but it is very restrictive on building shape and materials and requires lots of overdesign and high performance materials.

This standard is applied to buildings that absolutely must function after a major disaster, like hospitals or fire halls, and applying this standard to every new structure would make most buildings prohibitively expensive to build.

The biggest concern for earthquakes on campus are, unsurprisingly, the older buildings. Earlier buildings were built under earlier versions of the current code, with different requirements for structures in an earthquake. Knowledge of structural response to earthquakes has made huge advances in the last 50 years, and the NBCC has changed to reflect this. Clearihue and Cornett, both built in the 1960s, have both had major seismic refits, and should be safe in an earthquake. It is unlikely, however, that either of the two will survive a major earthquake without requiring demolition afterwards. The cost and quantity of repairs would likely be so excessive, it would likely be simpler and cheaper to build a new building.

The more modern buildings, like the Engineering/Computer Science Building, will fare better, having been built to adhere to more stringent earthquake codes. However, these modern codes still have life safety as their primary focus.

David Turpin was of particular concern. Originally, it was built as the primary UVic emergency operations center (EOC), but is now the backup EOC. During the design phase of the building, portions of the second floor geography department were custom-designed to replace the older EOC in Campus Security. Generators and custom generator outlets were installed (in addition to regular electrical outlets), and large closets for emergency supplies were built in.

But no design provisions were made for post-earthquake occupancy of the building, and this meant UVic’s emergency center could be permanently unavailable after a quake. This is an example of failure to properly plan for building use post-earthquake — it would take at least a day to certify a large, concrete, structure like David Turpin as safe for use.

When the Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake hit the University of Canterbury (UC), one of the major strengths of their response was their EOC was in a small, wood frame building, which was easy and quick (a matter of only a couple of hours) to evaluate and certify as safe after the quake and each of the many aftershocks. Applying this lesson to UVic, the emergency planning department decided to make the Campus Security Center the primary EOC. This is a simpler structure, which will be easier to certify as safe.

Currently, UVic has plans to upgrade 3 buildings to post-disaster occupancy: Campus Security (as their EOC) and the two main shop buildings (necessary for a quick recovery to any disaster). Additionally, the new Energy Distribution Center is planned to be built to the post-disaster standard. This is a wise policy. By ensuring their critical buildings have the greatest chance to be useable post-disaster, UVic’s emergency planning staff has put into place the groundwork for effective management of the disaster and made recovery from an earthquake easier.

The rest of UVic’s buildings will not be as important to re-enter immediately. This is acknowledged accordingly in UVic’s earthquake planning, which includes plans for temporary classrooms and other facilities on sports fields. This parallels UC’s effective response to the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Students and faculty can expect a great deal of dislocation post-quake. Buildings, especially older ones, may have to be demolished, contents and all. UVic carries insurance against this possibility, including insurance to cover the loss of unique apparatus. For faculty members doing research, cataloguing their apparatus is an important disaster response task, to speed up insurance claims and resume normal research.

Those buildings which survive and can still be used may require extensive repairs, which could take months. Each and every aftershock will require the damage assessment teams to go back through each building and re-certify it as safe. Classes will likely be conducted in tents or in pre-fabricated buildings for months, and, as was seen at UC, some of the pre-fabricated buildings could be in use years later.

When the big one hits, UVic will lose access to its buildings: some of them for days, some for months, and some forever. Fortunately, this is acknowledged in UVic’s planning, but it is something that faculty and students should know too.